Today, the feast day of the virgin martyr, St Agatha of Sicily, would have been a good day for the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines to decry from its thousands of pulpits a crime that stalks the Philippines hourly. Under-reported, it feeds on innocent victims the length and breadth of the archipelago with the insatiable appetite or a ravenous beast. The name of that beast is rape. And the memorial day of the Patron Saint of Rape Victims could have provided the Church with the perfect opportunity to draw attention to this immutable evil – an evil that leaves a woman or a child sexually violated in the Philippines every 57 minutes.
It could have broadened its flock’s awareness of the prevalence of this ugly crime; it could have called on St Agatha to intercede on behalf of the beast’s prey. It did neither. Instead, pulpit time today was given over to a nationwide assault on President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs with prayers offered to the war dead – in many cases hoodlums and thugs of the narcotics trade. Rape victims weren’t mentioned in the intercessory prayers.
This is the Church’s declaration of its own war against Duterte’s campaign to make the Philippines methamphetamine-free by means of an uncompromising battle with the narco lords and their minions. It’s been preparing for this fight for months – Bishops prepare for battle – now it’s out to win the hearts and minds of the people and bring Duterte and his lawmen to account. It’s appealing to give justice to the victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) – pushers, dealers, addicts and others caught up in firefights with police or executed by vigilantes and bandits.
It’s a story that’s rarely left the front pages since Duterte launched his anti-narcotics war back in July. It’s never lacked coverage – it’s been regurgitated by the media and the president’s opponents with the regularity of the weather report. But when did we last see an outpouring from these quarters over the plight of those who’ve been sexually violated by pedophiles and perverts? For the press, the administration’s political foes – and more significantly – the Church, the story of their suffering has gone largely unwritten.
But there’s a very good reason for that. The global Liberal-Left movement, comprising mainstream media, human-rights groups, political adversaries and every other faction that swells the ranks of international progressivism want Duterte removed. And Philippine rape statistics – appalling though they are – don’t have the calibre of the EJK bullet. They can only wound, they don’t have lethal force. Mainstream media might do the odd story on the subject, but they’re not going to build a campaign around it, as they have with the drugs war, to force regime change in the Philippines.
Media will capitalise on individual high-profile cases as they did back in September 2014 over the gang rape and murder of seven-year-old Myla Rosales. Her naked body with more than 20 stab wounds was recovered from the lavatory of a filthy shack in Paco, Manila. High on shabu (crystal meth) and drunk on gin, one of the three men who had violently shut down Myla’s life reportedly said: “I could not remember if I raped her but I know I stabbed her several times”.
Rape, though, isn’t hot enough for anti-Duterte groups to dissuade foreign investors from bringing their money across. It doesn’t create the universal fear that street killings do. In short, it’s very limited in terms of the damage it can do to Duterte personally and to his administration. And that’s the end game here; make no mistake.
And so, the 10-year-old girl who should be playing with her friends in the sunshine is left to be raped and tortured by some filthy pervert in the shadows of a collapsing slum somewhere in an inner city barangay. And the chances are she will never have heard of St Agatha. And nor will any future rape victim sitting in church or a Mass centre in the Philippines today.
The homilies which Filipino Mass-goers will hear today will speak of “a reign of terror” which the War on Drugs has unleashed on the country – not least its poor it will argue emotively. At the start of Mass, a pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) will be read out. It will seek to gather public opinion to its side and will advise “elected politicians to serve the common good of the people and not their own interests”.
This is a group over which the bishops once exerted tremendous influence. That influence has waned considerably over the past decade and the bishops want it back. They want their voice in state not just in church.
The pastoral letter’s careful wording – Duterte’s name is not mentioned anywhere – would have been finally agreed on seven days ago when the CBCP, the episcopal assembly of the country’s Roman Catholic Church (131 active and honorary bishops) met for its 114th Plenary Assembly at the Pius XII Catholic Center in Paco, Manila; that same district where the young life of Myla Rosales was snuffer out in that drug-hazed orgy of brutal sex.
The hawks and the doves within the CBCP have been wrangling over how they should deal with Duterte for months. They originally adopted a silent wait-and-see approach; but as the death toll mounted, hawkish bishops, supported by Church activist groups, increased their pressure and shoved the issue to the top of discussions at the three-day plenary. A handful had already made their own positions clear and it was these who were able to galvanise the support of the wider body.
Almost certainly alluding to the EJKs, drawing on scripture – “Thou shalt not kill [Exodus 20:13] – the letter states: “Every person has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty”. Unfortunately, that sentiment isn’t applied to President Duterte whenever the media and others bring up the EJK issue. To them he’s already guilty; according to them he “inspired” the killings, ordered them; even participated in them.
The fact is, the Church has no appetite even for the legitimate killing of drug personalities, any more than it wants rapists to be put to death. The Philippine Penal Code – which in 1997 incorporated an entire new chapter (Chapter 3) laying out the Anti-Rape Law – prescribes tough sentences for rape including, “reclusion perpetua to death” (life imprisonment) and death itself.
The Church is wholly opposed to another Duterte election-campaign pledge, to reinstate capital punishment, and will be fighting another battle over that as a proposal to lift the death penalty’s suspension from the 1987 Constitution gathers pace in the legislature. Right now, though, its main focus is on the EJK issue.
As of 9 January, the number of deaths under investigation – in other words, deaths not resulting from legitimate police action, though identified as potential victims of the drugs war – stood at 3,603. Let’s give that some context. This amounts to just 39% of an annual average rape rate in the Philippines of 9,221. (In 2015 there were 10,298 reported rapes). Add to those deaths being investigated a further 922, deaths where investigations have concluded – in all, then 4,525 alleged extrajudicial hits – and it’s still less than half the women and girls that are reported raped in the Philippines each year.
Furthermore, unlike the bodies in the street which are easy to quantify, the rape figures are based only on reported cases. And the problem is, given the heavy social stigma attached to being a rape victim in the Philippines – being branded maruming babae (dirty woman), for example – that number is likely to be a serious underestimation.
The other problem is that, the drugs war aside, the Philippines has a very healthy murder rate statistically in its own right. The chances then, that many of these ‘private-sector’ killings have no real bearing on either the drugs war or ‘public-sector’ law enforcement, are high. That they may have been made to look like drug-war victims puts them more in the category of ‘crimes of opportunity’ than anti-narcotics/vigilante killings. Others certainly will be gangland related – using the drugs war as a cover to settle turf disputes. Certainly, rogue cops will be involved in a number of these – after all, they’re part of Philippine Crime Inc; they always have been. They’re not going to pass up a chance like that.
Thus, our contention remains that this is a tough fight for the bishops to win. Cardinal rule or cardinal error? They’re taking on the most-popular president in the country’s history and the risk is that rather than regaining the flock’s respect for the authority of the Church, they could end up decimating it further. On the issue of Duterte’s War on Drugs – and the EJKs in particular, as they’re regularly used to defame their leader – the Church is dicing with the deaths of the people it wants to be presumed innocent in the hope of converting public support to its side. The latest Pulse Asia poll, released last month, gave Duterte an 83% approval rating. We don’t like the bishops’ odds.